Tuesday 28 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

A handful of very large, very rich companies that need fewer and fewer workers doesn’t add up to an economy.

  • Rana Foroohar, Financial Times, 27.07.2020.


Today’s musical alternative to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme

BB King and friends, live in the Albert Hall in 2011


So will Congress holds tech bosses to account tomorrow?

Er, don’t hold your breath. The New York Timesset the scene this morning:

The captains of the New Gilded Age — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google — will appear together before Congress for the first time to justify their business practices. Members of the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee have investigated the internet giants for more than a year on accusations that they stifled rivals and harmed consumers.

The hearing is the government’s most aggressive show against tech power since the pursuit to break up Microsoft two decades ago. It is set to be a bizarre spectacle, with four men who run companies worth a total of around $4.85 trillion — and who include two of the world’s richest individuals — primed to argue that their businesses are not really that powerful after all.

Last Saturday I highlighted Scott Galloway’s wonderful list of searching questions that the law-makers should ask, but probably won’t. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Interestingly, this will be the first time that Jeff Bezos has appeared before Congress.

The fact that the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee has been thinking about antitrust questions in relation to the tech giants is interesting, though. My hope is that the researchers have moved beyond “break ’em up” sloganeering and have started to think about the kinds of policy measures that would stand a chance of having an impact on the companies.

In that context, Benedict Evans published a very thoughtful essay on the regulation issue this week.

Tech has gone from being just one of many industries to being systemically important to society. My old colleague Marc Andreessen liked to say that ‘software is eating the world’ – well, it did.

The trouble is, when tech becomes the world, all of tech’s problems matter much more, because they become so much bigger and touch so many more people; and in parallel all of the problems that society had already are expressed in this new thing, and are amplified and changed by it, and channeled in new ways. When you connect all of society, you connect all of society’s problems as well. You connect all the bad people, and more importantly you connect all of our own worst instincts. And then, of course, all of these combine and feed off each other, and generate new externalities. The internet had hate speech in 1990, but it didn’t affect elections, and it didn’t involve foreign intelligence agencies.

When something is systemically important to society and has systemically important problems, this brings attention from governments and regulators. At a very high level, one could say that all industries are subject to general legislation, and some also have industry-specific legislation. All companies have to follow employment law, and accounting law, and workplace safety law, and indeed criminal law. But some also have their own laws as well, because they have some very specific and important questions that need them. This chart is an attempt to capture some of this industry-specific law. Banks, airlines and oil refineries are regulated industries, and technology is going to become a regulated industry as well.

It’s a great, wise essay. Worth reading in full.


How not to win friends in Silicon Valley

I’ve just learned that my Observer piece about Trump and Zuckerberg on Sunday had over a million page-views.

That’s even more than the piece I wrote in the Summer of 2013 about Edward Snowden.


‘Hygiene Theatre’ is a huge waste of time

Really interesting piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic arguing that surface transmission is not such a big threat compared with airborne transmission. In other words, “people are power scrubbing their way to a false sense of security”.

To some American companies and Florida men, COVID-19 is apparently a war that will be won through antimicrobial blasting, to ensure that pathogens are banished from every square inch of America’s surface area.

But what if this is all just a huge waste of time?

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to clarify that while COVID-19 spreads easily among speakers and sneezers in close encounters, touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Other scientists have reached a more forceful conclusion. “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told me. He also emphasized the primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission.

So “hygiene theatre” may be the Covid equivalent of the security theatre that goes on in airports.